With Lotto-Belisol and Ag2R-La Mondiale being granted WorldTour status, two remaining teams — Saxo-Tinkoff and Argos-Shimano — will battle it out for the last remaining berth in cycling's top division.
Blazin' Saddles imagines that the UCI and Pat McQuaid have rather a lot on their plate at the moment, so he's done their homework for them and come up with some key head-to-heads which should be taken into consideration.
It was announced this week that Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank would go Dutch, drop the banks, and emerge as a more streamlined Team Saxo-Tinkoff — resisting the temptation to rub Rabobank's noses in the much by overlooking the alternative Team Bank-Bank option. For their part, Argos-Shimano effortlessly blends ancient Greece with the Orient in their name — even if the reality is more North-sea-oil-meets-fishing-tackle-and-cycling-components.
Saxo Bank are a Danish investment bank and Tinkoff Bank is described as a "credit systems company" — ie another bank. Before Tinkoff joined the fold, Saxo riders kept their tans safe thanks to SPF moisturiser brand SunGard. Oh no, hang on, it seems that SunGard are something to do with banks too. (And they say there's no money in cycling sponsorship...) As for their rivals, Argos — despite conjuring up images of cheap catalogue-order electronics for most UK-based cycling fans — are an oil company based in the Netherlands, while Shimano are a Japanese manufacturer of cycling components, fishing tackle and rowing equipment. Given Bjarne Riis's penchant for SAS-style boot camps, you'd think Saxo would be in need of such things.
The arrival of Tinkoff Bank last year spelled disaster for Saxo's traditional eagle emblem, which was replaced by a provocative yellow sash which seemed to imply that the Tour's fabled maillot jaune belonged by right to dope-shamed Alberto Contador. This week, with the dropping of both Banks from the official team name, the eagle made a welcome return to the fold — and boy does it look good when silhouetted against that bright yellow. As for Argos, well clearly no budget has gone on kit design: their white-with-blue-lettering-red-outlines-and-flourescent-green-trim offering is a sartorial shambles — and definitely not worthy of WorldTour status.
The aforementioned Saxo Eagle takes on... a North Sea Atlantic Cod? While Argos seem to have no obvious synched animal, you'd think it would be some kind of dour fish, caught up in tackle and covered in oil from a slick. Still work to do on that front. Argos, clearly, are crying out for a Yak or something similarly bold to enter the fold.
Everyone knows pretty much everything about Bjarne Riis, while no one knows practically anything about Arend Scheppink. Given Riis's history, that probably gives his counterpart an advantage — although there's no denying the mystique that hangs around the big Dane. The addition of Russian businessman Oleg Tinkov and his roubles has raised eyebrows, however: a self-confessed cycling fanatic, Tinkov is said to have had a very relaxed attitude towards doping — indeed, his Tinkoff Credit Systems team was a hotbed of dastardly practices before it disbanded in 2008. Tyler Hamilton, a former Tinkoff rider and CSC rider under Riis, recently said that Tinkov's "return is a setback for cycling". "I do not like Oleg Tinkov. I do not trust him," he added, while stroking a white cat.
In the blue corner we have Alberto Condator, winner of five (or is that seven?) Grand Tours … and in the white corner there lurks John Degenkolb, winner of five (could have been seven) stages in last year's Vuelta. It comes down to whether or not you prefer your climbing over your sprinting, your beef over your brawn, your buenos over your yaaaahs. But for pure entertainment factor, we all know there's no competition.
Last year, Saxo were practically a one-man team — and that man wasn't even cleared to race until June. Argos, however, can claim to be 100% better in this respect — with Marcel Kittel joining Degenkolb in bringing home the team's bacon. Saxo have made some additions this year, with the likes of Nicolas Roche and Roman Kreuziger joining the fold, although Daniel Navarro will be missed. Still, any team with two Haedos in it can not be wholly taken seriously.
Saxo's reputation for toughness evaporated when Riis swapped his winter military bootcamps for summer jollies to Gran Canaria, while Argos boast a kind of togetherness outlined in their impressive Vuelta sprint train. Saddles knows which team he'd prefer being a part of, that's for sure.
Argos are relative new kids on the block, having risen from the old French Skil team via a slight identity crisis as 1T4i. After a year riding under a moniker that supposedly stood for "One Team for Inspiration, Integrity, Improvement and Innovation", they indeed showed their nose for improvement by taking on Argos as a main sponsor and changing their name to something less cryptic. Argos has a very low average age and there is a strong anti-doping ethic. Saxo, on the other hand, rose from the ashes of Operacion Puerto; Riis is a self-confessed doper and — if you believe Tyler Hamilton — encouraged doping amongst his best riders at CSC.
When Argos were Skil they relied on Kenny van Hummel for UCI points — now they have Degenkolb and Kittel. The German duo picked up 26 wins between them last year — more than van Hummel in his entire career and, tellingly, considerably more than the whole of Saxo Bank last year. In fact, if it came down to UCI points, Argos would walk into the WorldTour — especially considering that none of Contador's points for winning the Vuelta in such style count, given that they follow a doping ban. During the Giro, Saxo were very ordinary, but during the Tour they at least lit up the race occasionally through Michael Morkov and Chris Anker Sorensen's attacks. The Vuelta, however, showed just can be both exciting and get results. Kittel's Tour was ruined by an explosion of gastro, but Degenkolb turned things around in Spain. Too close to call.
It's hard looking beyond Contador in next year's Tour de France, while the likes of Roche and Kreuziger should be given their chances in the Giro and Vuelta. Saxo will be more of a force in 2013 regardless of ProTour status. As for Argos, it will be interesting to see how things pan out between Degenkolb and Kittel, who will fight for No.1 sprinter status while knowing that Mark Cavendish should well be back to his best at Omega Pharma-Quick Step.
Winner: Saxo Bank
Koen de Kort is growing some tasty handlebar whiskers for Movember but there was no sight of facial hair in the Saxo camp in Gran Canaria, which is a shame given the island's high number of German tourists.
OVERALL SCORE: Saxo-Tinkoff 4 — 7 Argos Shimano
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